Friday, December 22, 2006

Other Exceptional Animations with Mature Subject Matter in the Late 70s-Early 80s

Nepenthe Productions and writer/director Martin Rosen (and animator Tony Guy) made two dark films with mature (serious-minded) subject matter - both based on Richard Adams' best-selling novels about animals and ecological concerns:

  • Watership Down (1978), a bleak, allegorical animated fantasy film about the desperate quest of a warren of rabbits to find a new home, led by heroic Hazel (voice of John Hurt), a small, nervous rabbit named Fiver (voice of Richard Briers), and courageous Bigwig (voice of Michael Graham Cox). In the anthropomorphized tale, they must escape the destruction of their land during the construction of a housing development, and join a rival warren named Efrafa led by a vicious militaristic dictator, General Woundwort (voice of Harry Andrews). The film also included the last involvement in a motion picture for legendary actor Zero Mostel who played the cantankerous seagull Kehaar.

  • The Plague Dogs (1982), the even darker, far more nihilistic, pro-animal rights film about two abused laboratory experiment dogs, a cynical, bitter black Labrador named Rowf (voice by Christopher Benjamin) and a brown and white dog named Snitter (voice of John Hurt). Both escape from captivity in a secret British government research lab (Animal Research, Surgical and Experimental) and become fugitives. While on the run, it is falsely reported and suspected that they carry the deadly bubonic plague and they are relentlessly pursued.

  • the Adams' stories of the rabbits of Watership Down were retold in a short-lived animated TV series, produced by Rosen - 3 series of episodes aired beginning in 1999; with title music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
The French/Czech-made, science-fiction oriented Fantastic Planet (1973, Fr.) (aka La Plan├Ęte Sauvage) possessed similarities to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) with its two-tiered society on a faraway planet of Ygam, consisting of enslaved humanoids called Oms and a ruling class of bizarre, blue-skinned alien giants named Traags. It was based upon the popular French newspaper serial (Stefan Wul's Oms en Serie ("Oms by the Dozen")), and was lauded with the Cannes Film Festival's special jury prize, the Grand Prix, when it was first released. Its animation technique was to move paper cutouts across backgrounds.

The inventive animated fantasy Twice Upon a Time (1983), executive produced by George Lucas, told a story about two heroes and their friends who tried to prevent a maniacal madman from giving children nightmares. It used the same cut-out paper animation that South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999), the most profane animated film (with 399 swear-words) would also later employ.

The team of Arthur Rankin-Jules Bass was most known for its holiday specials aired on television, such as the object-animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) - with the voice of Burl Ives, Frosty the Snowman (1969) - with the voice of Jimmy Durante, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970) - with voices of Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, and Keenan Wynn. They also created the parody-spoof of monster films, their only feature-length animated film titled Mad Monster Party? (1967), with characters based upon many of the Universal 'monsters' - including Frankenstein (voiced by Boris Karloff), Count Dracula, The Wolf Man, King Kong, The Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The film used the stop-motion “animagic” process to animate the three-dimensional puppets. Two future Mad Magazine contributors, Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis, were responsible for co-writing the screenplay and design work. Reportedly, Tim Burton found this film to be extremely influential upon his own later work.

Also, the team of Rankin-Bass produced the anime-like mythological tale The Last Unicorn (1982). It was a sophisticated story from a screenplay by children's book novelist Peter Beagle about a lonely, last-remaining unicorn (voice of Mia Farrow) who set out on a quest to confront a beast of fire named Red Bull that had eliminated all the other unicorns.
Adults-Rated Animations in the 70s and After

Ralph Bakshi

Normally, animations are regarded as an innocent, innocuous form of entertainment, even though iconoclastic writer/director Ralph Bakshi's, adults-only rated-X feature (in its original release) Fritz the Cat (1972), based upon cartoonist Robert Crumb's underground comics character, was the first X-rated animated feature in Hollywood history. It was about a hippie-like, sex and drug-loving cat.

Writer/director Bakshi's next X-rated animated feature (later re-cut and re-released with an R-rating) was the violent, gritty and misogynistic Heavy Traffic (1973), a semi-autobiographical tale about a misfit comic-book cartoonist that was loosely adapted from Hubert Selby's novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. It blended together animated and live-action sequences in its urban scenes, and also layered old film clips into cartoon backgrounds. The animation auteur also released the controversial Coonskin (1975) (aka Street Fight) that was accused of being racist and offensive. It contained urban-oriented, politically-oriented blaxploitation content about a rabbit that ruled the streets of Harlem.

The surrealistic animator Bakshi also directed the animated cult film Wizards (1977) - a tale of good vs. evil and a test run for his next animation - The Lord of the Rings (1978). This latter film had an adapted screenplay co-written by Peter Beagle (based, although incompletely, upon books in J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy), and was noted for its extensive use of the animation technique of rotoscoping, in which human actors were filmed and 'traced' as cartoon characters. [Tolkien’s earlier introductory work The Hobbit (1937) was filmed as an hour-long animated TV movie by the team of Arthur Rankin Jr.-Jules Bass in 1977 as The Hobbit (1978). Voices for the characters were: Orson Bean (the hobbit Bilbo Baggins), John Huston (the wizard Gandalf), Otto Preminger (Elvenking), Richard Boone (Smaug), Hans Conreid (Thorin), and Brother Theodore (Gollum). Rankin-Bass also concluded the story in the animated TV film The Return of the King (1979).]

Bakshi also released the not-for-children sword-and-scorcery animated Fire and Ice (1983), with work by fantasy design artist Frank Frazetta. (Bakshi also directed various dark and psychedelic-flavored episodes of the Spider-Man cartoon series on ABC-TV beginning in its second season in the late 1960s.) One of his later works was the Paramount studio-financed, poorly-received Cool World (1992), containing a plot with similarities to the parallel animated Toon World in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). It also raised the intriguing question of whether a live-action person could have sex with a cartoon character, and featured Brad Pitt as the voice of a Las Vegas cop, and Kim Basinger as cartoon sex symbol creation Holli Would, who wished to become a 'noid' in the human world.